This month I’m looking at Shrove Tuesday and Easter food traditions from the British Isles and sharing ideas for enjoying these traditions in America. You’re probably familiar with Shrove Tuesday, even if you don’t realize it. It’s the day before Ash Wednesday. In the United States, it’s better known as Fat Tuesday – the last day of Mardi Gras – but if you’re British, Shrove Tuesday means Pancake Day.
A TRADITION SINCE THE 15TH CENTURY
Eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is a British tradition that’s been around since the 15th century, and possibly longer. Christians traditionally confessed their sins and received absolution on Shrove Tuesday, then spent the rest of the day feasting. It was a final time for merriment and indulgence before Lent, a period of abstinence and penitence lasting until Easter.
Shrove Tuesday is always forty-seven days before Easter. Because the date for Easter varies from year to year, the date for Shrove Tuesday varies too, but it always falls somewhere between early February and the first week of March. This year, it was on February 25.
In medieval and early modern times, Church rules restricted a variety of foods during Lent, including butter, milk, sugar, and eggs. In the British Isles, housewives typically made pancakes on Shrove Tuesday to use up these ingredients so they wouldn’t go to waste. Although most Christians no longer give up butter, sugar, and rich foods during Lent, the tradition of eating pancakes on Shrove Tuesday is still incredibly popular across the UK and Ireland.
BRITISH PANCAKES VS. AMERICAN PANCAKES
Marianne Curnow Kiendl, a native of Ruislip, England who lives in New York, is one of the administrators for the Facebook group Britain and Britishness. It’s a group where people who love the British Isles share beautiful photos of the UK and Ireland.
Marianne assured me that Shrove Tuesday is always pancake day at her house. “A traditional English pancake is very thin, more like a crepe, and it is served immediately,” Marianne says. “I will make pancakes with lemon and sugar. That’s how we ate them in England. It’s a tradition.”
While lemon and sugar is the most popular Pancake Day topping, it turns out the British get very creative with their toppings. Marianne notes that golden syrup is another common accompaniment, and I discovered that honey, chocolate sauce, jam, and fruit are also popular. English pancakes also pair well with savory toppings.
English-style pancakes are also widely enjoyed across Wales, Scotland, and Ireland on Pancake Day. Traditional Welsh pancakes sometimes called crempog, make an appearance in Wales, as do Scotch pancakes in Scotland.
Want to make your own English-style pancakes? I tried Mary Berry’s recipe. It uses just three ingredients – flour, eggs, and milk – which are the most common ingredients in traditional English pancakes. I also tried the British method of tossing the pancakes in the air to flip them. It took a few tries to get the hang of it, but it was a lot of fun!
RUNNING FOR PANCAKES
One Shrove Tuesday tradition that might seem a bit odd to Americans is the Pancake Day race. The oldest and best-known race is held in Olney, Buckinghamshire. It’s said to date back to 1445. Its exact origins are lost in the mists of time, but the most common story is that a woman was making pancakes when she heard the bells calling the townspeople to church for Shrove Tuesday. Church attendance was required by law, and rather than leaving her pancake to burn, she ran to church with her skillet in hand, tossing the pancake as she ran.
Other communities with Pancake Day races include Reading, Guildford, Woking, Scarborough, and Peterborough, where the race is held on the grounds of Peterborough Cathedral. The races often raise funds for local charities.
In America, the town of Liberal, Kansas celebrates this uniquely British tradition with its own Shrove Tuesday race. The ladies of Liberal have been going head-to-head with the ladies of Olney, England in the annual International Pancake Day race since 1950. Liberal’s celebration also includes pancake-flipping and eating contests, a parade, a carnival, and children’s, teens’, and men’s races.
The last day of the event falls on Shrove Tuesday. Things start bright and early with a pancake breakfast, which opens with the presentation of the American and British flags and renditions of the Star-Spangled Banner and God Save the Queen. The breakfast feeds approximately 1,200 pancake enthusiasts each year. It’s followed by the children’s, teens’, and men’s races, then it’s time for the main event, the official International Pancake Day race.
The 415-yard race takes place in both Liberal and Olney, more than 4,600 miles apart. Participants run through their respective towns brandishing frying pans with pancakes that they’re required to flip at the start and end of the race. After the race, there’s a Shrove Tuesday service, then Liberal and Olney link up by webcam to announce the winners from both races and declare the overall victor for the year.
This year, Katie Godor of Olney completed the course in 1 minute and 6 seconds, narrowly edging out Whitney Hay of Liberal, who completed the course in 1 minute and 9 seconds. That brings the record to 39 wins for Liberal and 30 for Olney (the 1980 and 2017 race results were scratched due to technical difficulties).
HOT CROSS BUNS
Ash Wednesday ushers in Lent, a somber period of penitence and contemplation. It also brings a seasonal treat called hot cross buns, which originated in England hundreds of years ago and are also widely enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, and Ireland. They’re called “cross” buns because the top of each one is marked with an X. Traditionally, the X was made with a thick paste of flour and water, but icing may be used today.
The small sweet buns are typically made with cinnamon, nutmeg, currants or raisins, and mixed peel, but they now come in a wide variety of flavors. Although they were traditionally eaten on Good Friday, hot cross buns are available throughout the Lenten season these days. Some American bakeries and grocery stores sell them in the weeks leading up to Easter, but if you can’t find them locally, you can find numerous recipes online to make your own.
THE GRAND FINALE
Now we come to the grand finale, Easter Sunday, which commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the British Isles, roast lamb is the centerpiece of the traditional Easter dinner. Lamb is closely associated with Christ, who is often referred to as the Lamb of God, as well as with springtime and rebirth. The lamb is often accompanied by potatoes, spring vegetables, and mint sauce.
The iconic British Easter dessert is Simnel cake. According to The Illustrated Encyclopedia of British Cooking, this light fruitcake filled with grated lemon rind, currants, raisins, glacé cherries, and candied peel dates to medieval times. The cake’s defining feature is its liberal use of marzipan. Half the batter is placed in a cake tin, then covered with a thin layer of marzipan before the remaining batter is added. After it’s baked, the cake is covered with more marzipan, decorated with eleven marzipan balls representing the eleven faithful apostles, and broiled until the marzipan is lightly browned. BBC Good Food has recipes for numerous variations on the traditional version, including Simnel loaf, Simnel muffins, and Simnel cherry tart.
WHERE’S THE CHOCOLATE?
Pancakes, hot cross buns, lamb, Simnel cake – it all sounds delicious, doesn’t it? But for anyone who grew up in America, it’s hard to imagine Easter without chocolate. Don’t worry; you’ll find plenty of chocolate eggs and rabbits in the UK too.
The most popular Easter candy in the UK is the Cadbury Creme Egg. It was introduced in 1971, and according to Wikipedia, UK residents buy more than 200 million of them each year between January and Easter. The Cadbury Creme Eggs sold in the US are manufactured by Hershey, which licenses the name from Cadbury. These tasty chocolate eggs filled with creamy white and yellow fondant will make a fitting conclusion to your Easter feast.
THANK YOU FOR SHARING
I want to thank readers for the tremendous response to my January column on Cornish pasties. There were lots of comments on Anglotopia’s Facebook page, as well as on the website, Instagram, and Twitter. Many readers shared family memories and favorite pasty places in Michigan and Wisconsin, and we also received reports of pasty strongholds in places as far-flung as Butte, Montana; Grass Valley, California; and Everson, Washington.
I hope you’ll join in again this month by sharing some of your favorite Pancake Day memories and favorite British Easter foods and traditions. Happy Easter!